You are a bestselling author of gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest. With your gender-neutral name and the genre that has always been dominated by male authors, I assumed that you were a man. Am I the only ignorant soul around here or does it happen to you a lot? Are your readers surprised to discover that you are a good looking, educated, professional woman?
Yeah, this happens a lot, not just in my writing career, but in my former tech career as well. One Amazon reviewer wrote an awesome review for In the Dark that said what a badass writer that man Chris Patchell is. It made me laugh, so I posted it on my Facebook site. My mother responded, “Um, did you correct her?” No. I thought it was hysterical.
While this isn’t intentional on my part, I do find that using Chris as my professional name helps eliminate gender-specific preconceptions out of the gate, because both the tech industry and the thriller-writer world tend to be male-centric. Not something I could get away with if my name was Sara. It also feels more natural, since my family has called me Chris my entire life.
How do you manage to write books while you go to work, take care of your kids, and spend time with your husband? Does any part of your personal life suffer neglect once you immerse yourself in writing your stories?
Balance is always hard to achieve. Invariably when you’re juggling a lot of things, you make tradeoffs. These tradeoffs can either be explicit or implicit. Early on in my writing career, I did neglect my family when I was working on a story. I would stay late after work some nights to write. After a while though, I became more explicit about my choices and gave up other things that didn’t matter as much in order to free up time for my writing. I realized that when I was working fulltime, I could only do one other thing. I gave up piano lessons and a lot of other small things that were taking time so I could carve out blocks of time to write. Talking these choices over with my husband beforehand helped forge an understanding about what time I would spend and how. That’s the thing about a partnership—it’s a give and take. About a year ago though, I gave up my tech career to write full-time, which has definitely eased the tension between warring priorities. So, now I can play the piano, and write, and spend time with my family. The next challenge will be to waste less time on the Internet…
Some of your main protagonists are women. They seem to be flawed beings who make questionable decisions and pursue wrong paths in life. Anti-heroes. Why write about us girls in such a way? Why not create female characters who are fully likable, and lady-like so that we can love them without much effort?
I grew up loving anti-heroes. To me, flawed characters who makes mistakes is so much more real than a shiny version of the same character. Because, let’s face it, we all make mistakes. We all struggle with our own demons. And maybe because I’ve avoided being stereotyped my whole life, I write women who aren’t Barbie doll members of the PTA. They’re strong women. Some of them are dark, and broken, and fascinating. That’s okay because not all girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. When you think about the people at work, do you spend more time thinking about the people you like, or those who you don’t? Perhaps these kinds of characters are harder to like, but I think they’re more memorable because of their flaws.
Your stories take place in the Pacific Northwest, a vast mountainous region with many secluded and unreachable areas. And the weather… does it ever stop raining? It’s easy to believe that bad things happen there. How do you develop your story line? Do you scout a few places that would fit your plot - do you search for a perfect location that can house your story? Or do you get that next story line while you hike around on a Saturday afternoon and the atmosphere of the spot inspires you?
This is a great question. I do both things. When I was researching In the Dark, I went looking for a place that was near a lake—close enough to Seattle that it would be easy to reach and remote enough for bad things to happen without immediate detection. I loaded the family in the car one rainy afternoon, turned on the GPS, and went exploring every little lake north of Seattle until I stumbled upon a Girl Scout camp located between the Tolt River and Lake Langois. It was perfect. Surrounded by moss covered trees that looked like they had been plucked from one of Tim Burton’s nightmares, we discovered a half dozen cabins on the valley floor that captured my imagination and I knew immediately it was the perfect place. Months later, we were driving past a greenbelt on the way to the grocery store. Gazing out the window, I noticed a few fallen trees on the hillside and I thought “landslide”, and it spawned a new idea. When the rain stops in the spring, I think that the Pacific Northwest is one of the prettiest places to live. And, when the rain begins in the fall, it’s one of the best places in the world to write thrillers. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.
I have read some comments from readers who said your books should be read with the lights on. Do you ever spook yourself out with the stuff you write?
I don’t scare easily. Maybe that’s because I grew up watching scary movies and reading Stephen King books. The only time I actually got spooked by a story was reading The Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris. I had a few creepy things going on in my private life at the time, and man, that story got me. My older brother was a jock and was better at pretty much everything, but he couldn’t watch horror movies because they scared the crap out of him. I’m not actually sure he reads my books…
You have self-published your titles and become a successful indie author. What does it entail to earn the ‘bestselling’ status? Did you seek the help from book cover professionals, editors and marketing gurus? Or did you just write a good book and the rest is history?
Man, I have learned a lot of things on this crazy Indie journey. It all starts with a good story. If you don’t have that, no matter how much marketing muscle you put behind your work, it will likely fail. Especially when you’re new. We all have heard of big name authors who have pushed out mediocre books that have hit the bestseller lists and thought ‘really’? Readers can overlook lapses in craft if you’ve written a good story. But simply writing a good book is not enough to make you successful. If no one knows about your book, it’s not going to take off. Having a background in business has helped me plot my path as an author. I’m realistic about what skills I have, as well as those I don’t possess and need to hire out. While I loved the original cover for Deadly Lies, my agent (who I signed with when I published In the Dark) did not. It turned out that she was right. When I hired a cover artist to come up with a new design, the book took off. My husband and I designed the cover for In the Dark, which has done really well, but I’ll admit that I’d rather have someone with more skill do this. So, when I published my third book, Dark Harvest, I used a professional. When people are scrolling through the millions of books on Amazon, your book has to stand out. A great cover is an essential marketing tool, and with more and more authors everyday publishing, there’s a lot of competition. Starting out as a new author, I did not know the first thing about marketing, so I hired a professional. I have learned a lot working with Rebecca and educated myself by reading hundreds of articles about the industry. I love data. I’m big on learning, which is good, because things are changing all the time.
Are you open to traditionally publishing your future books? Would it be a dream come true to work with one of the Big Five publishers or are you perfectly happy with being a bestselling Indie?
I think about this question a lot. There are advantages to both sides of the coin. One of the reasons I decided to publish Indie was because the traditional publishing gates were so difficult to navigate. The agents I pitched to weren’t interested in stories starring female anti-heroes that were sometimes hard to like. I figured that if I someday decided on a traditional deal, I would have a better shot getting the kind of deal I wanted if I already had a following. Traditional houses don’t spend much marketing muscle on new authors so the Indie world gave me a better shot. That’s not to say that at some point I might not want a traditional deal. Someday, I would love to see my books on the shelves of the bookstores in an airport or a Barnes and Noble. I think it comes down to making the right decisions at the right time, and at this point in my career, I’m right where I need to be.
Are you planning on writing more suspense, crime-filled stories in the future? Don’t you ever have an urge to write a romantic love story? Do you feel that your friends and family would prefer that you write more feminine material or do they accept the fact that you are just not that kind of girl?
God, romance sells a ton of books, but sadly, I’m just not that kind of girl. The stories that percolate inside my head are the dark and twisted kind. I do have a story idea I’m working on though that’s more in the psychological thriller vein. It’s a story about damaged relationships where everyone has their own version of the truth, and while each of them acts in accordance to what they believe is the truth, it turns out they are all wrong. There will be no cop characters in this one, which should make the research a little easier.
What is the most difficult part of writing a book for you? Does it get easier knowing that you have already produced three successful books? Or does the pressure increase with every new title?
I find the most difficult part of finishing a book is the discipline required to edit it. I complete at least four major revisions of a story on top of a hundred minor ones. That’s a lot of rewriting, and I’m one of these gals who hate time-shifting stories where you’re forced to revisit a scene again! UGH. But, every revision makes the work better and I want to produce the best stories I can. I always want to refine my craft and become a better writer. You would think that with three successful books, I would become less paranoid, but no. I always worry about whether a story is going to resonate with readers. Will they like it? Will it do as well as the last one? I see my career as a series of stepping stones, and if one doesn’t reach my goals, then I feel like I’m off schedule. So, yeah. I do use beta readers in my process, but still, I worry. My family has come to accept that I become a raging paranoid mess in the weeks leading up to and following a launch.
Did the fame change you in any way? How did you react when you found out that you hit the bestselling list?
OMG. I still have screenshots of my books beside some of the biggest names in the business. Being listed beside Stephen King was a HUGE milestone. I have screenshots of my book in between Lee Child and Tom Clancy’s latest releases in the top three for my genre. Every time this happens, I’m as giddy as a kid. And as for fame, I don’t consider myself famous. I’m always surprised when I meet a stranger who has heard of me or my books. I feel very honored when a reader reaches out to me on social media, or a new author asks for my advice. I have had some wonderful mentors along the way, and I believe in giving back.
What strategies do you use to deal with criticism?
Criticism comes in two forms. Though constructive criticism is an essential part of improving your craft, it’s not always easy to hear. I get a lot of this kind of feedback from my editor (a.k.a. the destroyer of all my good work). At first, I’m convinced that he just doesn’t understand my brilliance. But after sitting with it for a while (could be a few hours or a few days), I realized he’s right, and get back to work. I solicit this kind of feedback from my writing group and my beta readers. I also scan early reviews for nuggets of constructive criticism. The second kind of criticism is much nastier. Some people love nothing better than trashing someone’s work online. This kind of criticism has nothing constructive to share and is usually associated with trolls. When I read the first few nasty reviews of my work, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me and I quickly realized that I needed to find a way to deal with so it didn’t undermine my confidence as a writer. I looked at the list of top selling books, picked a few titles in my genre and read all their 1 and 2 star reviews, because every book has them. Knowing that all authors deal with these kinds of reviews was helpful. I’ve read books that my friends loved and I didn’t. That doesn’t mean they’re bad books—they’re just not the right books for me. Sometimes a bad review comes down to just that. I try not to dwell on bad reviews, or let specific language used seep into my brain. If I’m in need of cheering up, I read some good reviews and remind myself that there are far more of those than the nasty ones.
What is your favorite childhood memory?
As a kid, I grew up in farm country with nothing but open fields as far as I could see. Those long, golden, summer months were filled with daydreaming. One morning I took a jar and ran back into the fields. I spent the day catching tadpoles in a creek and stretched out beneath a maple tree. Wind ruffled the leaves. Lazy clouds drifted by. Lazy days where my imagination took flight were the best kind of days.
Are any of your characters based on your close friends and family? So many authors say that they like to write some of their least favorite people into their books and kill them off, slowly and painfully. Do you need to make any confessions in this department? We would be happy to hear them out, LOL.
Marissa Rooney from the Holt Foundation, shares some similarities to my mom. Both were young mothers, both struggled with financial constraints and self-esteem issues, and both loved their children. When I create characters like this, I think deeply about what motivates them. What do they want? What do they need? What experiences did they have to form their world view? And on the bad side, well… There is a character in Deadly Lies who is loosely modeled after someone I knew. Watching this person in action inspired some interesting (and fun) story ideas. You know what they say—names have been changed to protect the innocent (or not so innocent, as the case may be). My friends sometimes pass along character names, in case I’m looking for another victim to bump off. So, if you have any folks you’d like to eviscerate in fiction, feel free to let me know.
Which one of your fictional characters would you be most afraid of in real life and why?
Xander Wilcox from Dark Harvest, because he’s brilliant, broken, and is acting in a way he believes is right—which is the scariest motivation. People who believe they are right and have a mission are impossible to reason with and hard to stop.
Have you experienced any heart-warming encounters with your fans? Have you come across any scary, crazy fans and what was it like?
Absolutely! I’ve had fans reach out and tell me how much they have enjoyed my stories. This is a wonderful feeling for any writer. You send your work out there and you hope it entertains. It’s awesome when your work hits the mark. And as for the scary side, there was only one encounter I had with a fan that was uncomfortable. I was being interviewed on a radio blog program. I didn’t realize it was a call in show. One fan called in and repeatedly commented on my looks. Um…. Uncomfortable…. I deflected the comments and we quickly moved on with the interview. Creepy. I do have to admit that due to the nature of the kinds of books I write, I did think about publishing under a pen name, but my husband talked me out of it.
Do you have any book signings or giveaways coming up? How do we stay in touch with what you’re up to?
I am always doing giveaways of one kind or another. You can sign up for my newsletter and follow me on Facebook for notifications of these kinds of events. As for signings… well… I’m heads-down on the third draft of my next novel, so I’m keeping a low profile. Butt in chair. Brain engaged. My third book, Dark Harvest, is doing a blog tour with Partners in Crime the entire month of August. The tour will include reviews of the book, guest blog posts, interviews, and giveaways. On August 29th @ 10 AM EST, I’ll be interviewed on a radio blog show by blogger Fran Lewis, which should be a lot of fun. Highlights from the tour will be posted on my Facebook site. Stay tuned!!